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Finding Tatters, a dog who does matter

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Paula Wrightson finds one of Preston Manor’s much loved dogs and reverses the sad story of Tatters using newly found evidence. 

One of the tombstones in Preston Manor’s pet cemetery has the following touching inscription:

‘Here lies Tatters not that it much Matters’

Poor unmourned Tatters died in 1884 going to his grave apparently not mattering very much to anyone.

Photo of tombstone with moss covering

Tatters’ tombstone

Of the 16 known dogs buried in the cemetery, Tatters’ gravestone is the best remembered, and a favourite with successive generations of visitors. The popular stone was even once available in postcard form in the Preston Manor gift shop.

Photo of Tombstone bearing inscription and the name 'Tatters'

Postcard showing Tatters’ tombstone


Tracing the origin of this dog is much more difficult than finding a pedigree animal like the Pekingese dogs, Kylin and Chu-Ki whose oil-on- canvas portraits can be seen in the house.

Over the years, Tatters’ place in history has been considered by researchers, though the trail always runs to a cold stop at his grave.

An article in the Royal Pavilion Review, July 2005 entitled, Man’s Best Friend? – The Dogs of Preston Manor, Jessica Campbell writes,

‘One of the Stanford family dogs, however, received little attention. No portrait of “Tatters” hangs on the staircase or anywhere else in the Manor. His only memorial is his tombstone, inscribed, “Here Lies Tatters, Not that it Much Matters 1884”. These unconsciously poignant words suggest that this particular dog was not such a valued member of the Stanford family circle. One wonders what “Tatters” had done to deserve such a dismissive epitaph.’

Others have come to similar conclusions. Margery Roberts, daughter of Preston Manor’s first curator, Henry Roberts was interviewed for an article in the Sussex Daily News. Dated 26 March 1935 and entitled The Companionship of Dogs, Margery walks through the cemetery commenting on the stones:

‘The words on the following grave-stone nearly always draw a comment of some sort from passers-by. As nothing can be remembered about him except that he was a mongrel, the rhyme must have been very apt.’

She then quotes Tatters’ epitaph.

Ursula and Judy Gaselee (private collection with permission)

Ursula Coventry (née Gaselee) looked back to her 1920s childhood in an article for Brighton’s community newsletter, The Post Magazine in May 2012,

‘Ellen and Charles Thomas-Stanford loved dogs and liked to take rescue animals; most were much loved and buried with fond inscriptions in the pet cemetery, but one dog, Tatters, never really settled with them nor won their affection. I can still remember the inscription.’

Ursula came as a child guest to the Thomas-Stanfords with her mother Lady May ‘Mollie’ Gaselee and met the family dogs. But was she mistaken in remembering Tatters as a dog belonging to Ellen and Charles? Tatters was buried in 1884 yet the Thomas-Stanfords did not come to live at Preston Manor until 1905. The year of Tatters’ death, Ellen was living at her first husband’s family residence, Pythouse at Tisbury in Wiltshire.

Margery Roberts, like Ursula Gaselee, knew Preston Manor in the 1920s. Both were children of the Edwardian age. It is further into the past that we must travel to find Tatters for he and his owners were Victorian – and these people can be easily identified.

B&W photo of two young twin sisters

Diana and Christiana (Lily) Macdonald 1887

Preston Manor in 1884 was the home of Ellen’s twin half-sisters, Diana and Lily Macdonald then 18-years old and confirmed dog-lovers.

Tatters belonged to Diana and Lily who likely obtained their scruffy little pet from the Sussex Temporary Home for Lost and Starving Dogs in Robertson Road a few minutes’ walk from Preston Manor. The home at numbers 2-4 was founded in 1884 by sisters, Juliana and Maria Gregory in memory of their sister Caroline, three of five sisters who lived locally at Withdeane Lodge.

Photo of front cover of book

The Hove Year Book 1907

An advertisement in the 1907 edition of The Hove Year Book notes the home is ‘supported principally by voluntary contributions’ and that pets will be ‘restored to their owners on application’. Sadly, then as now, dogs became abandoned for all manner of social and economic reasons, and the home was open to visitors on weekdays 10am to 4pm. These visitors would be people like Diana and Lily looking to re-home an unclaimed dog.

If you go to Robertson Road you can see the original house, now number 4 and little changed externally since 1907. Here you can see a plaque on the west wall commemorating the memory of Caroline Louisa Gregory. The Gregory sisters’ work with stray dogs has not been lost to history. The Sussex Temporary Home for Lost and Starving Dogs became the Canine Defence Animal Hospital and Dogs’ Home and is now a busy PDSA Pet Hospital.

Photo of stone plaque set in brick wall

Plaque on Robertson Road remembering Caroline Louisa Gregory

Photo of hospital building from road

PDSA pet hospital, 2018

I found Tatters by lucky chance whilst visiting the Prints & Drawings archive at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.

I’d gone to look at a small collection of watercolours showing interiors at Preston Manor in 1896 and ‘97. Along with the interiors, thought to be painted by an amateur watercolourist named Captain Jackson, a family friend and one-time fiancé of Lily Macdonald, were watercolours painted by Lily herself.

Watercolour showing lawn in front of a church

The Church from the Lawns, Lily MacDonald, 1884

One painting shows a garden scene at Preston Manor. A woman in a red short-sleeved jacket, dark-blue dress and summer straw-hat decorated with red flowers sits on a chair looking towards the house across a low tennis net. St Peter’s Church is visible behind leafy trees, shrubs and a bed of red and white flowers. At the woman’s feet sits a small black dog, his ears pricked to attention heeding his mistress. The dog sits at a crouch not fully relaxed. He looks ready to spring up at the slightest word. Lily has included the lengthening shadows of the trees at her back and these shadows reach almost to the slope at the lawn’s eastern edge. The hour of day is late afternoon in high summer and on turning to the reverse we have the exact date: June 25th 1884.

Lily has signed her work in pencil and added a title, ‘The Church from the Lawns.’ My first impression is that the woman and the dog are there to make visual interest secondary to the church, a splash of colour against the otherwise uniform green tones of an English garden in summer.

However, to my delight, Lily has added a note alongside her title: ‘Di & Tatters’ she writes identifying the woman as her sister, Diana (who was known as Di) and the dog as Tatters. He, or possibly she, was a small rough-haired black dog with upright jaunty ears, a pointed muzzle, and a long tail in the curled shape of a question mark.

Tatters clearly does matter because in December 1884 Lily makes a copy of her summer painting, also now in the Prints & Drawings archive. ‘Copied from the original’ she notes in pencil on the reverse adding ‘for Nellie Benett-Stanford.’

December 1884 copy of The Church from the Lawns

The watercolour was made as a gift to her 36-year old half-sister, Ellen affectionately known as Nellie. The December copy shows the exact June scene yet with small subtle differences. Tatters is now standing but gone the suppressed ready-to-leap dog of June. He faces his mistress as before but this time his ears are the flat ears of a defeated dog. His curled tail hangs limply and his aspect is greyer and sadder.

We know from his tombstone that Tatters died and was buried in 1884. By Lily’s first watercolour we know he died sometime after he was portrayed on 25th June making Lily’s December version posthumous. Tatters shown at the year’s end is Tatters remembered as a little grey ghost of a dog standing four-square attentive in the last of his days. He exists under the doting gaze of Diana, lovingly recreated by Lily and given as a gift at Christmastime to Ellen.

I believe this is not a dog of no matter, and so his epitaph must be re-examined.

Tatters will always be with us, the sisters agree as they mourn their beloved pet. His body is gone but the essence of the dog we love remains forever. Where he lies in death does not matter because he will always be alive in our hearts.

Tatters’ tombstone can be seen on Thursday 13 September 2018 when Paula Wrightson will be taking a tour of the pet cemetery as part of the national Heritage Open Days festival. Meet at Preston Manor front entrance 11.00a.m. The tour is free of charge and lasts 1 hour.

Paula Wrightson, Preston Manor